Harassment, intimidation by university administration, ever-rising university fees, crumbling infrastructure and facilities, and the criminalisation of students compelled a large number of students to stage a demonstration on Friday to press authorities for restoration of student unions that had been banned for over two decades.
A large number of students belonging to various councils gathered outside the National Press Club Islamabad. They included Progressive Students Federation (PrSF), Revolutionary Students Front (RSF), All Baltistan Movement (ABM), Baloch Students Organisation and Jammu Kashmir All Students Federation, besides other progressive student organisations. Minhaaj-ul-Arfeen, a representative of one of these organisations, said on the occasion that time had come to free the stifled education system from ageing bureaucrats and their profit-making interests.
“Instead of responding to students’ concerns through structural reforms, universities have instead instituted more securitisation, policing of student dissent and rigid moral policing to prevent student interaction and collective action,” he regretted.
He also alleged that the incumbent government has exacerbated this crisis by slashing the higher education budget, adding that students must be represented in the system to which they are party, and we will pursue all and every legal avenue for the restoration of student unions. Rehana Akhtar, a representative of Revolutionary Students Front (RSF), recalled that the ban on student unions from the “past three decades” had stifled collective student action. She regretted that despite the oppressive and discriminatory actions of universities and their administrations as well as the Ministry of Education, students marching across 50 cities in Pakistan were a symbol of resistance and would not stop until student unions were unbanned.
Criticising the increasing fees in public sector and private sector universities, she demanded that free education be provided till college and the class-based education system be reformed.
Muneeba Hafeez alleged that the corrupt administrations are engaging in and covering up horrific sexual crimes. However in today’s technological age, these scandals are being brought to light and must be addressed immediately. She called for immediate formation of sexual harassment policy in all higher education institutions, and committees formed to draft these policies to have a 33 percent quote for student representation.
In a passionate speech, Danish Yaseen explained the nature of our education system, based on class and privilege instead of merit and academic excellence was producing professionals unable to find adequate employment opportunities. “Furthermore, our political arena has been robbed of genuine leaders from the masses, aware of the conditions of the masses. Instead, politics is now dominated by the same capitalist and class-based system that has ruined our educational system.”
Sanagar Ali highlighted the example of the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) on how the education system continued to serve the privileged by creating barriers for upcoming professionals by instituting policies to generate more capital.
To bring about radical social change, a transformation in our education system is a necessary condition, and students are ready to bring about this change. We will not stop until student unions are reinstated.
Ammar Rashid, who has championed the cause of student unions for years, congratulated students on creating a countrywide movement that shook the centres of power in the country.
Reminiscing on the cause, Ammar explained how a few people who come to the protests organised to reinstate student unions only a few years ago, but committed and consistent work was now bearing fruit. The contradictions of this system and increasing oppression of all marginalised communities is bringing people together to demand a new and better deal for everyone in this country.
Explaining the origin of banning student unions, Ammar reaffirmed the belief that young people, through student unions and movements such as the Aurat March and Climate March, were ready to change the very foundation of this unjust and unfair system. “Students deserve representation and must organise. This will uplift universities and revive the barren political culture and debate in this country.” While lamenting the government’s alleged deal with IMF, Women Democratic representative Shehzadi Hussain said that the students’ education was being compromised for the profiteering of individuals and corporations and robbing people of the education they need to succeed in the future.
She said that students continue to feel insecure on campus and their bodies are routinely policed, these measures are meant to oppress students as authorities are fearful of their capacity to transform our political trajectory.